Can Shohei Ohtani actually succeed as a two-way player?

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

There is a phrase for what 23-year-old Shohei Ohtani seeks here, for this Ruthian mission on which he dares to test the conventions of an arena that knows itself, perhaps to a fault.

In Japan, it is, “Yakyu o suru.”

Here? “Play baseball.”

Just, play baseball.

While there are a thousand reasons for the gulch between those who swing the bats and those who attempt to miss them, most having to do with money and time and risks involved, there also is the element of skill. Being a great pitcher, as Ohtani seems to be, and a great hitter, as Ohtani could be, is a bit like playing a piano with one hand while jackhammering out a driveway with the other, or so it is viewed and has been for generations.

Somewhere in that sandlot-Little League-high school-travel ball blur, the kids who could throw hard and the kids who could swing hard are sent on divergent base paths, assigned different coaches, groomed by different masters, held to different rules, only to meet again in a postgame handshake line. They specialize within their specialties, and specialize within the specialization of their specialties, until a young ball player’s skill is honed to the very point that will allow him to make his college team or throw a hundred or hit a ball over a fence or earn him millions, whichever comes first.

So let us take a moment to honor where it all began, way back then, when a young boy or girl stood on a patch of grass and dirt, when the game was to play baseball. All of it. And then to honor what may lie ahead for Shohei Ohtani, the right-handed pitching, left-handed batting, two-way superstar, dreamer, hardball conundrum and test case. Ohtani’s team in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters, is expected to post Ohtani by Friday, so to begin the romancing by 30 general managers of the most mysterious and promising MLB newcomer since the illusory Sidd Finch.

By all accounts, Ohtani has equal passions for pitching and hitting, a workload he bore in Japan and apparently would prefer to continue come April. Thigh and ankle injuries curtailed his 2017 season for the Fighters. A healthy Ohtani in 2016 made 20 starts, threw 140 innings and had 174 strikeouts and a 1.86 ERA, and in 382 plate appearances batted .322 with a .416 on-base percentage and 22 home runs. He is listed at 6-foot-3, 189 pounds. He runs well. Those who know him say he is an earthy sort who works hard and is liked by his teammates. All of which is fine, wonderful, and does not answer the question of what Shohei Ohtani the starting pitcher/right fielder or Shohei Ohtani the starting pitcher/designated hitter or Shohei Ohtani the starting pitcher/pinch-hitter might look like here, where there are more games played over a shorter season and greater distances traveled by larger men who long ago were specialized into pitching or hitting but almost never both.

Shohei Ohtani at bat during the international friendly match between Japan and Mexico at the Tokyo Dome on November 10, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. (Getty Images)

Ohtani, of course, would appear to be special. He’s ridden the two-way thing into the hearts and minds of big-league franchises, which just last week were tasked with outlining their ideas for how they’d deploy Ohtani from their roster. Given Ohtani throws a 100-mph fastball and that his greater value would seem to be on the mound across 180-or-so innings, the challenge will come in the accumulation of at-bats. That is, where the at-bats will manifest themselves. As a designated hitter three or four times a week? As a semi-regular or platoon right fielder? As a starting pitcher who – gasp – runs the bases, bats with his pitching arm exposed, careens against outfield walls and possesses the time and energy required to acclimate himself to American cities, big-league pitchers and big-league hitters? Could he be great at both? Would the effort alone dilute it all, leaving him great at neither? Shouldn’t he try?

And what would that look like?

Well, no one seems to know for sure. For one, a major league hitter’s day looks pretty full. So does a major league pitcher’s.

For a summer, somewhere between contracting the yips and choosing an alternative career path, Rick Ankiel was a starting pitcher and designated hitter for the Johnson City Cardinals. Rookie ball, 2001, on the other side of nearly 250 major league innings. He was 21. Free from the three-tier stadiums and four-tier expectations, he had a 1.33 ERA in 14 starts, 158 strikeouts across 87 2/3 innings. He also hit .286 with 10 home runs in 118 plate appearances. It wasn’t the big leagues. Not close. But it was his big leagues for that summer.

“I got the recipe,” he said with a laugh. “This can be done. And, yeah, I’m rooting for it.

“This guy’s work ethic is through the roof, or more than we do anyway. And he’s just playing baseball. He did it in Japan. He knows how to do it. We’re talking about winning and losing and competing. The guy’s already playing at a high level.”

He added, “When I was a position player, 100 percent I could have pitched one day a week.”

In Japan, pitchers generally start once a week, which works out to a couple more days of rest, which would open Ohtani’s schedule some, allow for recovery from his starts and grant extra time for the batting cage and other preparation.

“Can he be great at both here?” Ankiel posed. “That depends on how good he really is.”

In a sampling of pitching coaches, general managers, scouts and players, the most common opinion was that it would be very difficult to play both ways in today’s game. And, also, that it would be incredibly cool if Ohtani could pull it off. And that they’d like to watch him try. Some believed the injury risk to a high-end pitcher was not worth the risk. Others wondered about the roster makeup, particularly if Ohtani were promised at-bats, only to discover in, say, June the experiment wasn’t working. One idea had Ohtani take regular starts in the rotation for a few weeks with a sprinkling of pinch-hit at-bats, followed by regular innings in the outfield for a few weeks with a sprinkling of relief innings. Another, a big-league pitching coach, said, “The pitching side would be hard enough for him. To be an everyday player on top of that, I just don’t see it happening. Not at an impact level. No chance.” He then softened, perhaps charmed by the notion of such a player: “If he can do it, man, that’d be great. That’s all anybody ever wanted to do.”

Another pitching coach, asked the same questions, said, “Tell me how he recovers from a start.”

Until then, he said, there are few answers to be had.

“It would change our perspective,” Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer said of a dual-threat Ohtani. “I would like for it to be done. It’s going to be really hard. It’s going to take a unique, special talent. But it’s not impossible. He’s found a way to do it and he probably knows more than I know about it.”

So, Archer’s typical routine, beginning with, say, 110 pitches on Sunday:

Monday: Basically, the day after, he said, “I’m done.” He conditions with a longer run and maybe some core stabilization. “I don’t pick up a baseball,” he said. “My arm is too sore.” He’ll watch video on his last start and begin video preparation for his next start.

Tuesday: Bullpen day and medium intensity conditioning. Depending on how his pitches feel, how his body feels and if he is chasing something new, the bullpen session could last 15 pitches. It could go 35 or more. He’ll continue his video preparation.

Wednesday: “This,” he said, “might be the ideal day to play in a game.” The soreness has subsided. He’d undergo massage therapy, then ride a stationary bike or do some pool work. Also, play some light catch.

Thursday: The end of his recovery. He’ll run 10 or more sprints to excite his system. Play light catch. Ready himself, he said, “To put your body through hell the next night.”

“It’s daunting, mentally and physically,” Archer said. “But, I can’t wait to see it. I definitely want to see it happen, to see someone defy all the obstacles.”

Rick Ankiel was a starting pitcher and designated hitter for the Johnson City Cardinals in 2001. (Getty Images)

The point is, recovery and injury avoidance and training leading to something close to peak performance, some of which may look like inactivity and remains essential. Archer has thrown more than 200 innings in each of the past three seasons, more than 800 over the past four seasons, and what comes from that is the commitment required to get to that first pitch every fifth day, and then the last one, particularly come August and September. And, by then, feather in 200 or 300 or more plate appearances, potentially hundreds of outfield innings, whatever time spent on the bases, and the season gets longer.

“It sounds crazy,” veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said. “But it could be done.”

Werth is 38. His daily routine – that is, healing from the night before and then standing in the outfield and in the batter’s box 21 hours later – might not look (or sound) like that of a 23-year-old.

“You could make time to do both, I guess,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before the right person comes along. That’s the next level, right? You can do anything you put your mind to. I could see it happen.”

He chuckled and added, “It’s going to take a young guy, that’s for sure. Then you’d have to train like Drago.”

So, Werth’s typical day …

“Depends,” he said. “Am I banged up? Really banged up?”

He rises in the late morning, eats breakfast, rests some more. He arrives at the ballpark at least five hours before the first pitch and begins to prepare … for batting practice.

“It’s the legs,” he said. “They take the beating. My hands are OK. It’s more the feet and legs.”

By 7 p.m., he’s ready. By about 10:30 p.m., he starts over.

It’s a lot, just like pitching is a lot, and together, said one National League scout, “There aren’t enough hours in the day. You’re going to have to sacrifice one area or the other.”

There are dozens of reasons the true two-way player came and went, by and large, with Babe Ruth. There is, perhaps, one reason for its return, and that is Shohei Ohtani. A general manager out there somewhere will outline a plan that is appealing to Ohtani, and a field manager will implement that plan, and a roster will have to be adjusted, and perhaps a rotation too, and then, as Rick Ankiel said, the success of the plan will depend on how good Ohtani is.

April will come and then it will be time.

Yakyu o suru.

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